A review of Occupying Wall Street, The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America, by Writers for the 99%.
Three years ago this fall, an intrepid group of 100 young people set up camp at an obscure park near Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. Out of this modest beginning, a great social protest movement was born. It was called Occupy Wall Street and would soon spread across the US and the World.
Occupying Wall Street, The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America tells that story. It includes a detailed account of the experiences of OWS at Zucotti Park, with stories from other cities intertwined in the narrative.
I, unfortunately, never went to OWS but became part of the larger movement at Occupy Providence, in Rhode Island. From little details such as how political signs made on pizza boxes became a symbolic object of OWS, to how, during the November 2011 raid on the encampment, the police destroyed over 8000 books in the OWS library, leaving only 800 in usable shape, this book provides information and experiences of the Occupiers that I never knew. Within the book, the writers do a commendable job of describing everyday life in Zuccotti Park. Chapters discuss how the General Assembly, the nightly decision making body of the Occupation operated, including how different hand signals such as “twinkling” and “blocking” worked within the GA.
As reported in the text, the media’s presence at OWS was minimal to nonexistent during the first week. National Public Radio’s executive news editor Dick Meyer explained the lack of coverage in this manner: “The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption, or an especially clear objective.” Of course as Jon Stewart later noted, the media eventually “moved its coverage dial from ‘blackout’ to ‘circus’. But those are the only two settings it has.” The book correctly notes that coverage only began in earnest when there were videotaped examples of heinous police brutality. This highlights the importance of independent media and how the various Occupy newspapers, the ‘Occupy Journals’ from cities across the country, were important to getting the word out on what was actually happening.
The book points out how the raids on Occupy encampments were a nationally coordinated effort by 18 mayors of major US cities in conjunction with federal authorities from the Department of Homeland Security. But, as noted in the book, attempts at clearing occupations or the thought of clearing occupations in many instances only increased the participation within Occupy. The book states how an encampment in Missoula, Montana was winding down. People were talking about ending the occupation. Then word spread that law enforcement was going to raid the encampment and this galvanized the people and strengthened the occupation. Describing the re-encampment of Occupy Oakland, musician and activist Boots Riley stated in a Facebook post: “Bam. We’re back at Oscar Grant Plaza. They spent half a million dollars to evict us, only to figure out that we won’t quit. 2500 people here. Holding General Assembly.” An important question on the role of the police is raised in the book: “Will police and politicians continue cracking down, change tactics, or return to the old days of “negotiated settlement?”
Another important contribution in this book was the experience of the People of Color (POC) working group. This formation was driven by the fact that during the Occupation there was a feeling that people of color were not actively encouraged to become involved in the activities in the park. This emanated from people directly at Zuccotti Park to inclusion of those from the surrounding community. There were many instances of racist behavior that led to people leaving the park. As stated by a member of the POC, “The POC’s purpose is to keep the movement accountable, to keep these progressive white activists accountable, to have them understand that just because they are now feeling the pinch and burn … it doesn’t mean that people’s worlds haven’t been in turmoil for decades, for centuries.” Out of the POC, groups such as Occupy the Hood formed, and actions such as Occupy 447 in Harlem were supported. Occupy 447 notably organized with tenants who were fighting a slum landlord who was trying to drive out residents by keeping the housing units in deplorable condition. This is a widely employed scheme where landlords and real estate speculators are able to ‘flip’ a housing site and gentrify it.
An important connection that the book provides is how organizers from occupations around the world networked, influenced, and assisted each other in their own struggles. OWS was sparked by the uprisings of the Arab Spring and lesser known occupations from around the world, in Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela. These occupations, along with the 2011 Wisconsin protests and occupation of the state capitol in Madison, provided a framework and encouraged resistance.
This book does raise for me an important question of how to make change and organize post Occupy. Do activists now need to rethink how they organize? In what form should rallies and demonstrations be conducted? Does it make sense to have large weekend demonstrations in large cities? The use of social media greatly assisted OWS but what are the limits and downsides of this?
As of this writing Occupy Hong Kong is in full effect. So is Occupy dead? One thing is sure. You can’t evict an idea.